As many of you may know, I am fanatically obsessed with ultralight minimalism, to the point that most of my brain power is allocated toward determining how to travel with a setup so light that it reduces my body weight when carrying the pack. The rest of my cognitive abilities are expended by ranting vociferously about how no one will provide me with the components that I need to accomplish this task.
In fact the whole point of this blog is not to provide helpful tips to prospective travelers, but to establish myself as such a mighty force in the backpacking community that when I publicly shame an outdoor clothing company for making inadequate travel gear, they will be forced to hang their heads in shame and acquiesce to my tyrannical demands.
I have a lot of friends.
So there are often quite a few puzzle pieces missing from the ultralight gear setup, not because I can’t find anything, but because I can’t find something just right. Goldilocks gave up on her third try, and I’m still grasping at perfection.
So I’m going to detail the gaps in my strategy, with suggestions for what would be a flawless inclusion to the setup, and then go cry myself to sleep because none of it exists. Not in flawless Platonic ideal form, anyway.
Awesome travel gear I wish I could find:
1) The perfect travel t-shirt
Let’s start here, kids. Because it’s clearly the most miserable failing of my endeavors thus far.
Now I know what you’re thinking: This guy must have mental challenges. Yes, but not the kind you’re thinking about.
It’s not that I can’t find fast-drying, wicking t-shirts, but the problem is that the only options readily available on the market are polyester or merino wool; both of these work well enough for ultralight backpacking, but they both have limitations.
- 100% polyester generally feels like you’re wearing a wet garbage bag, especially if you’re sitting on a plastic chair with no ventilation.
- 100% merino wool feels spectacular, but is often expensive, and might have trouble drying overnight if the room isn’t warm enough, and wet wool smells pretty ridiculous. Bugs also eat it. Merino wool t-shirts are about as good as it gets, but I wish there were cheaper, equally good alternatives.
I also get annoyed how most of these options have massive logos and fluorescent colors, when I prefer to clothe myself in logo-free gear featuring depressing grays and blues.
You know what nobody bothers using? Tencel. It’s stronger, softer, more sustainable, more absorbent, faster drying, and less wrinkly than a cotton t-shirt, has been found to reduce skin temperature by several degrees when compared to cotton, and sounds like it would be the perfect solution for ultralight backpacking, and nobody uses it.
Well, practically nobody. Way to go, Tommy Bahama!
The pure fabric might work well just on its own, but I expect that overnight sink washes would require a certain amount of polyester to speed things along. I’ve seen Tencel blended with polyester from a few different companies, but in each and every case there’s something objectively wrong with them; they’re somehow twice as thick as ordinary fabric, or they have bizarrely scratchy seams, or they’re designed only for the obese, or they have ridiculous logos all over the place, in bright, fluorescent colors.
Just try Googling “Tencel shirt” and you’ll run into the Sisyphean ordeal I face on a daily basis.
Seriously, guys, t-shirt. It’s not that hard. Make one.
2) Fleece that doesn’t look like fleece
On the upside, fleece jackets are so popular these days that nobody’s going to get annoyed if you wear a fleece jacket to a fancy party.
On the downside, they’re usually so brightly colored you could signal a ship in the middle of a thunderstorm.
You know what I miss? Sweaters. They look classy, and they’re nice and warm. Sure, they’re easy to find, but it would be nice if they were more widely available in outdoorsy materials rather than expensive cashmere, for example. I also get annoyed when sweaters have metal zips, since they feel ice cold in the winter if they’re touching the skin, and I’m afraid they’re going to rip into the rain jacket.
As for most fleece jackets, they’re usually pretty thick. It’s actually pretty tricky finding a lightweight sweater, with a full zip instead of a halfway one. Just sayin’.
I’ve seen a few outdoorsy companies make these sorts of things, but they’re oddly rare in the world of outdoor gear, forming this weird gap between half-zip base layers and heavyweight fleece jackets. I prefer basic t-shirt + full zip lightweight sweater. I can’t be the only one, right? But I’ll keep looking.
Or jumpers, for all you UK types.
3) A panel-loading, ventilated backpack
This is a never-ending quest for me. I’ve ranted before about the travel pack I wish I could have, and I’ve given up completely and settled for decency instead of perfection. But my spirit remains damaged.
I’m seeing more and more backpacks with panel-loading designs (they have a flap that opens up like a suitcase), which is incredibly convenient, but they remain extremely rare, which means if I also want a ventilated, trampoline-style back panel (and I always do), then it cuts my options down to practically zero.
In the meantime I think I’ll just go for packing cubes, since that would sort of simulate the convenience advantage that a panel loader would provide. But it’s still kind of annoying.
Oh, and it should be waterproof, too. Seriously, why is this not legally mandated!??! Argh.
And don’t talk to me about rain covers. All you have to do is make the pack out of waterproof fabric and then it is a rain cover. No more fumbling for the rain cover in the rain. No extra weight because of the rain cover, plus its zippered pocket. No more dry bags to protect your laptop, because you don’t need any. Win win win win.
(Okay, I know panel loaders have trouble with this, since the zipper is hard to conceal, but top loaders should all be waterproof.)
A number of travel-specific packs do in fact exist (and many of them are good), though ventilated backpacks are still extremely rare. They have their downsides, though.
4) Travel jeans
Seriously, guys. No travel jeans? Why are there no travel jeans?
Backpackers argue all the time over whether or not to bring jeans, and I’ve pointed out that this debate is the unfortunate byproduct of sheer stupidity on the part of the outdoor industry for failing to make travel-friendly jeans.
The closest I’ve seen is Bluffworks pants (reviewed here), which were originally designed more as office pants, but if they’re ever made in blue, the debate would be over.
Other potential options include natural fabrics that would outperform cotton, especially in extremely hot or cold conditions, with some polyester thrown in for strength, wrinkle resistance, and quick-drying properties.
Literally the only one on the planet I’ve seen that does this is Tilley, which make a Tencel/polyester pair of jeans that I totally want, but will never shell out $150 to get. Hemp jeans could work too, but practically no one makes them. Sad times.
The first person to make travel-friendly jeans is probably going to make several million dollars. Ready, go!
Update: I finally got some! Check out a review of the Rohan Jeans Plus, which offer partial high-tech features with some natural fabric for some familiarity.
5) Travel underwear that doesn’t suck
Sorry, Ex Officio aficionados. Your beloved boxer briefs are simply not good enough. I know people love them, but they’re designed for large people. The legs are far too loose to stay put on the body of a small person.
I could go on and on about the problem here, and have gone through dozens of products from Patagonia, Under Armour, REI, EMS, the aforementioned Ex Officio, and plenty more. It’s amazing how badly they screw this up every time.
Idiotic decisions include:
- Non-stretchy fabric. Seriously, guys?
- Textured fabric exterior, which creates friction when rubbing against pant legs, which not only increases heat, but moves things around.
- Seams that go over incredibly inappropriate places. I cannot begin to describe the sheer level of stupidity that goes into these decisions.
- Loose legs that move around annoyingly. Boxer briefs should more or less stay in place.
- Men’s underwear clearly designed for a woman’s body. Yes, it actually happens.
I really just can’t believe it on this one. It’s so incredibly easy to take the tried-and-true boxer brief design that sells a billion Hanes every year and duplicate it with super-breathable fabric, but most of these companies spend time trying to distinguish their products with unconventional designs, nearly all of which are incredibly stupid.
Like putting scratchy seams in places they shouldn’t go. Argh.
Update: I finally found some of these too! Check out a review of the best men’s underwear in the universe and rid yourself of all others.
6) The perfect laptop lock
So this one semi-exists. I want a way to lock a laptop to a bed, so I don’t have to get all paranoid about leaving it in a hostel. And since doing that requires stuffing it into a lockable bag, the bag might as well be padded as well.
The best I’ve seen is the Travelon Lockdown Bag, or the Pacsafe Portable Safe. Both look pretty effective.
But you know what? They could be better. First of all, the steel cable that locks to the bed could be reconfigured into a shoulder strap, and then the whole thing becomes a messenger bag. Alternatively, the bag could use the design of a dry bag, which features a roll-top closure that clips together. As long as the clip is lockable, you’ve got a dry bag and a locked laptop bag.
I’ll concede that this is such a niche idea that it’s not surprising it doesn’t seem to exist, but they’d still be pretty great.
7) Tyvek shoes
I’ll admit this is sort of a maybe. Allow me to elaborate:
Tyvek is that white, paper-like material used in construction to protect sensitive areas from the weather while a house is still being built. Variations are also used in chemical protection suits. Breaking Bad, anyone?
Tyvek is lightweight, waterproof, highly breathable, flat and packable, and extremely durable. In other words, it’s the perfect travel shoe material.
It seems weird to make a shoe out of a construction material, but it sounds great. Waterproof and breathable shoes make great travel shoes, but they’re usually thick and heavy, whereas Tyvek solves that problem. It’s also effortlessly crushable, so your shoes would pack flat and barely take up more space than a pair of flip flops. Neat, right?
I’ll say it does have two potential downsides; first of all, the crinkly texture looks a little weird. Maybe not bad, but weird. You might feel the need for fancier shoes. It’s also super thin, so they wouldn’t offer much protection against kicking your toe into a rock on a hike.
But these are potential downsides, so I’d still love to give them a try. Current options tend to be a little more on the casual side than the dressy side, though. Plus the crinkly texture makes me iffy. Bars occasionally require nice-looking shoes, and I doubt these could make the cut. But maybe a non-crinkly variation would save the day. Perhaps.
8) Lightweight Chacos
I have a love-hate relationship with Chacos, since they’re literally the only sandals on the planet that don’t dig into the instep, but they’re twice as heavy as they need to be and Chacos won’t make lightweight versions of their flagship product without somehow screwing up the design and ruining what’s good about it.
I really have no idea why 99% of sandals on the planet include that strap over the instep that digs into the skin right where the shin hinges onto the foot, but for some reason, they do. Chacos don’t, so they’re the only sandals I can wear, but damn…they need to go on a diet.
Or somebody just needs to copy the Chacos design and make soles that are half the weight. If Chacos are going to rest on those laurels, the only way to keep them on their toes is steal those laurels. Somebody do it!
Update: the Updraft has been redesigned to suck less than it did originally, and is probably a pretty good option. Make absolutely sure the version you get isn’t the old one, which had plastic/rubbery heel risers.
9) Scrubba Wash Bag
So yeah, this exists. And I want one.
The reason I got into the ultralight game was because back in the day I started traveling, I kept running into ridiculous laundry-related problems, and barely used any of the spare changes of clothes I had anyway. Carrying a bare minimum and washing frequently works quite well.
Ordinarily I’d just wash whatever outfit I was wearing whenever I took a shower. This works well enough, but you have to wash each item individually, and it’ll never be as clean as you’d like it to be.
The Scrubba solves both these problems. It’s essentially just a dry bag with a ridges on the inside. You throw your laundry into the bag, fill it up with water and soap, seal the bag, and squish it for a few minutes. This means you can wash 2 outfits simultaneously, rather than washing each single piece individually, and the internal ridges do a better job of scrubbing than a shower rinse. It’s both faster and cleaner than shower washing, plus it’s a laundry bag. Win win win.
It’s pricey, though. $65 isn’t cheap. But I like it.
10) Water Purifier Bottle
So these do exist, and I can namedrop several that work quite well. They’re water bottles that include a filtration or purification system contained entirely within the bottle, meaning all you have to do is fill up and drink.
- Lifesaver Bottle: $200; filter and purifier; very cost-effective over the long run. Reviewed here.
- Katadyn MyBottle: $50; filter and purifier; fairly cost-effective and very simple. Reviewed here.
- The Grayl: $70 for a filter version, $40 more for a purifier; fairly cost effective and very classy. Reviewed here.
- Sawyer Water Bottle Filter: (pictured) $60; filter only; extremely cost effective.
Different people would benefit from different options, but for the most part, purification (which includes virus removal) isn’t important unless you’re in developing countries.
If all you need is filtration (removes everything but viruses), the Sawyer water bottle is spectacularly cost-effective, and is guaranteed to last for 1 million gallons (about 3.7 million liters), which is amazing. The up-front cost is cheap, too.
My complaint had more to do with the fact that these options are relatively new, and that I’ve had problems with other models, and it would have been easy to design it correctly, but they didn’t. The above options are solid.
Will I ever find my magical travel gear?
So I feel like this has been my nitpickiest post thus far, and in some cases, it’s mostly just a matter of perfectionism, or the grass always being greener on the other side. But many times it’s just objective design failures that ruin my day.
Some of the technologies listed above are relatively new (Tencel), or so bizarrely marginalized that no one seems to know they exist, so I’m happy to give a pass in some cases, but other decisions are just blatant errors that make me think half the outdoor industry is just drunk all day.
I haven’t even mentioned some of the fashion mistakes the outdoor industry makes (visible zippered pockets on dress shirts are oh-so-classy!), but I’ll save that tirade for another day. And in all honestly, the options that do exist are often adequate.
But dammit, I don’t want adequacy, I want immeasurable perfection. And I shall continue in the pursuit of such endeavors until such a time as I am satisfied. Wish me luck!